Masada DVD review

A classic sword-and-sandals miniseries finds Peter O'Toole in some of the best form of his career...

Doing it the hard way - Masada

In his 1971 novel The Antagonists, Ernest K. Gann fleshed out the narrative of 1st century Jewish scribe Josephus regarding the ‘Masada siege’ into a robust and effective sword-and-sandals yarn depicting two warring factions with a great deal in common; in Boris Sagal’s 1981 TV adaptation, the Roman and Jewish contingents are separated more by the machinations of politics and the poisonous effect of corruption than by the sheer drop between the almost unassailable hillside fortress and the roman legions itching to claim it for the glory of the empire.

In 70 AD, Roman legion commander Lucius Flavius Silva (Peter O’Toole), is brought into the Holy Land to bring peace to the region, but his earnest attempts to wring out a truce and political compromise with dissident leader Eleazar ben Yair (Peter Strauss) are undermined by the machinations of the Roman senate and the fears of emperor Vespasian (Timothy West).

Acceptable terms for Roman occupation soon disintegrate back into violence, with Strauss and Co. holing up in the impregnable mountain fortress at Masada, and waging a psychological war with the legion of overheated Roman troops in the valley below as they slowly and painfully build the mountain-sized ramp necessary to breach the fortifications, with a tight schedule and a desperate emperor breathing down their necks…

From the point of view of anyone who has ever participated in a large project, Masada is a fascinating insight into a daunting endeavour. Putting aside the politics of the slave labour used to construct the ramp, the technical challenges of gaining entry to the fortress are an illuminating insight into Roman-era technology.

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The account of historical events at Masada is filtered several times over, and can only be described as sketchily accurate at best, but Gann and screenwriter Joel Oliansky have painted some fascinating characters onto the Roman side of this vague slice of history, and Masada represents some of the best production values ever seen in this format – which has rather given way to ‘Movie Of The Week’ output and long story arcs in multi-seasonal series.

As usual the naughty and dissipated Romans are played by Brits. The Roman=English (not Scottish, Irish or Welsh but Southern English) conceit is an easy shorthand that simplifies poly-lingual/temporal considerations and lets Hollywood cast some faintly-foreign race (us) as the semi-bad guys, since we a) had a recent empire and are therefore worthy of rotten fruit, but b) weren’t as nasty as the Nazis. Fair enough. If it’s good enough for Ridley Scott…

On the plus side, this reliable if rusty old casting technique frequently brings some excellent British acting talent into high-budget S&S productions, and Masada is no exception. O’Toole is absolutely superb as the dissipated commander and sad widower drinking his way to oblivion and trying to temper the hardness of his heart and of the Roman empire with the tenderness that his lost wife inculcated in him. Silva is a well-rounded character capable of both cruelty and great compassion, and we shadow the emotional rollercoaster of his semi-enslaved Jewish mistress Sheva (Barbara Carrera) as she tries to decide if letting herself love him is a betrayal of her people.

Anthony Quayle is at least equal to O’Toole in the acting stakes as Rubrius Gallus, the pragmatic and loyal imperial engineer trying to get the fortress breached whilst keeping old friend O’Toole on the straight and narrow, whilst David Warner luxuriates in yet another deliciously slimy (and Emmy-winning) part as Pomponius Falco, the career-climbing senator determined to undermine O’Toole’s operation and take over.

A broad gamut of familiar Brit faces are also present amongst the Roman senate and soldiers, including Michael Elphick (apparently playing the same rotter he had just played in The Elephant Man) Christopher Biggins, Nigel Davenport, Morgan Sheppard, Anthony Valentine and Warren Clarke.

Though the casual viewer may initially resist the casting of WASP-ish Peter Strauss as chief agitator and siege-leader, he proves to be excellent in the role. The Jewish patriots and families under his protection are all played with American actors, or at least accents. Of course.

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But the fact that the standard of casting and acting on the Jewish side of the fence in Masada is well below that of the Romans is surprising, since the screenplay gives such depth, latitude and vigour to the Roman characterisations, and only Strauss and movie hard-man Paul L. Smith stand out amongst the rather bland faces and voices up on the mountain.

If you don’t like this kind of character-driven historical epic, you won’t last long into the six-hour runtime of this excellently-transferred release – otherwise the hours will fly by. There is some padding, such as centurion Warren Clarke’s attempts to go AWOL with Silva’s money, but most of the less-necessary scenes are redeemed with wit and excellent performances.

The audio channel on Masada is locked, rather pointlessly, since there seem to be no extra audio tracks or commentaries available, and this release sadly has no extras of any kind. Be aware also that it concludes with the pointless and patronising ‘forger from hell’ video that Universal are tacking onto the post-credit video of all their current releases.

The huge, non-CGI, full-scale ramp that the producers come up with in the closing hour of Masada is a jaw-dropper, and the production wisely attempts very few non-practical effects. The ever-growing ‘deep-voiced’ plot round-up is a jarring anachronism along with Jerry Goldsmith’s bombastic score and a few others, but Masada nonetheless remains a fascinating and engrossing story well-told.

4 out of 5

Masada is released on 7th July

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4 out of 5